There was a time, believe it or not, when the xiao long bao was fairly unknown outside China, and the few who tried to replicate it ended up with a forlorn, limp sac of dough bunched up around a meatball. The difference between that and this Shanghainese delicacy in all its glory is the subtle, cunning art of enclosing a mouthful of stock along with the minced pork in a wrapper that is thin yet elastic, so that it all bursts when bitten in a glorious draught of molten flavor.
It’s actually hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve xiao long bao these days. Suzhou, at Bonifacio Global City, is the latest contender in the market, having moved uptown and upscale from their Binondo digs.
Does Makati really need another Chinese restaurant?
Very much so, unless you have a driver and a 4×4 in which to go down to Greenhills, where everyone has a driver and 4×4. The drivers run over dogs and small children in their effort to get as close as possible to the door of the restaurant, and it is there, and only there, that the family will emerge, one at a time, in slow motion. If you drive your own car in Greenhills they will laugh at you and put you in a corner table and feed you scraps. I know this from experience.
But there are some nights when only MSG-laden peanut oil will do the trick, and the choices at more southern latitudes are scarce.
There is Mey Lin on Jupiter Street, which has become one of my favorite places to wind down. There is Panda’s Kitchenette on De la Rosa Street, but it isn’t for beginners, or even for advanced amateurs; the effect on one’s taste buds is as though a panda jumped up and down on them. And that’s about it, apart from upscale and hotel restaurants.
Suzhou has all the elements of a modern Chinese restaurant: uncomfortable curvy furniture on which to bark one’s shins, red velvet drapes, and tinkly music. Even the fellow diners were straight out of central casting: a group of shady men huddled behind one of the curtained booths planning a hit; a table of dyed-blonde sex-and-the-city types with salacious banter, raucous laughter, and a bottle of scotch; a young Chinese couple on a date.
Every seat was filled, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. All the dishes we had ordered arrived at the same time, like a magic trick.
Suzhou, the city, is a quick train ride away from Shanghai and is known for beautiful women, etiolated ancient gardens, and a high and rarified cuisine that once eclipsed the port town Shanghai’s more down-and-dirty fare. There is absolutely no relation between the food of Suzhou and that which one finds at the eponymous restaurant in Makati. But once this has been established, one can go on and enjoy the menu, which represents more or less the state of contemporary Chinese fare in the Philippines today.
There’s a bit of the Hongkong-Canton nexus there, some of the newer dishes from the Sichuan-Hunan fire-breathing fare that the newer migrants have been bringing on, some of the dishes that the local Fujian Chinese can’t go without, and a couple of dishes from all over China, maybe even some from Suzhou.
It’s a little more expensive than your usual Chinese restaurant, but four people ate comfortably on what you’d pay for appetizers and drinks down the street.
I wonder how long the drapes will stay clean and the furniture unmarked, and even more unlikely, the menu will stay at this bargain price-point. I would like to see a few more exotic items on the menu, and would pay extra to be introduced to some Suzhou area specialities; the repertoire of this cuisine is vast.
Otherwise, I’m happy to report that the Fort area has found its neighborhood Chinese joint.
Suzhou Eastern Chinese Restaurant is at the 2/F, Crossroads Complex, 32nd St.; tel. 5511680.